Treasures Close to Home – New England Aquarium

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As I’ve said more than once, our trip to the Amazon was life-changing for me. Unfortunately the bad part of that is that I want to go back immediately. And then again. It’s a little bit of how I feel about South Africa which is also a major love affair of mine–we went four times in three years as I got a little crazy about it. Fortunately, I was able to get a small dose of the Amazon right here in Boston, two weeks after we returned from Manaus.

I mentioned in a prior post that, in order to prepare for the trip, I read a book about a tiny fish called a piaba being a part of saving the Amazon. The book is here.  And because I am such a groupie, I sent an email to Scott Dowd, the New England Aquarium scientist/educator/guru behind Project Piaba to tell him we were going to the Amazon, that we loved the book, and did he need anything back from the area?

Scott responded almost immediately. He gave us some ideas of where to stay and to go, and also told us about a woodworking foundation called Fundação Almerinda Malaquais (or simply “Fundação”, site is Portuguese only) in the town of Novo Airão. We visited this collective on the last day of our stay and were treated to a tour of a large open-air (roofed) warehouse where benches and tables were marked with the names of the workers, and we talked to several of them about what they were working on. One woman, who had left the tree-felling industry (yay!) had been through a number of classes and re-training and now was making a lovely carved ray. One of her rays lives now in our house, probably hating the lack of humidity.

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Image credit: Fundação Amerinda Malaquais

The fundação is all about training locals to sustainably work with the forest–and now Scott is also working with them to train the aquarium fish workers in woodworking too for the offseason. Here is a part of Scott’s note to me about it.

In the high water season, the aquarium fishers that I work with can’t fish – too much water. We’re organizing a program for them to spend a few weeks in N/A and get some woodworking training. This is intended to be an off-season source of income. The plan is for them to carve aquarium fish themed items, and ship it all out using the same intermediaries that would transport and export the aquarium fish. The fish hobbyists up here are showing strong indicators that there is a good market for that sort of thing, Here’s some of the early trials:

All of this background is leading to something I promise. Our treasure in the backyard: the New England Aquarium, and by association, the interesting people who work there. We’ve been members since the first week we moved here from Brazil three years ago. It is, to me, the perfect sized and designed aquarium–ascending along the sides on long ramps with individual aquariums until you reach the top and a coveted view of Myrtle the Turtle at the top of the Giant Ocean Tank (GOT)–then descending in a spiral back to base. All the way being treated to the sights (ummm, and smells) of lots of penguins. If you haven’t been: go now. And go early. We are usually first in at 9 am because later in the day it gets impassable. To whet your appetite, there is a live cam of the GOT that makes you lose a whole lot of your day watching (ummm, oops, that’s me but Myrtle did just swim by).

Scott invited me and my kids to a backstage tour there and on a given Thursday, Nico and I went into Boston to meet Scott.  In a way, I feel like I should give up on any description of the backstage because Sy Montgomery in her book The Soul of An Octopus has done such an unparalleled job. Actually it’s a good thing I am reading that book only now because if I had read it before, I would have been too intimidated to even reach out to Scott. He’s a titan. But one without a pedestal, and he has not eaten his god-kids since I did see them at a book talk in Cambridge 🙂

Scott met us at the entrance to the Aquarium and then we went up the back stairs to the inner lair of the Aquarium. Narrow hallways, wetsuits hanging in antechambers, volunteers chopping up pieces of whatever to feed to the thousands of residents of those aquariums. I have to say I was completely impressed by their volunteer organization, and with the white boards containing lists of who eats what and when. Not to mention the friendly and helpful employees who would answer Nico’s thousands of questions about everything.

We saw all the tanks from the inside looking out. We could see the many tourists looking in on the fishes, filled with wonder, pointing, smiling. I cannot imagine the joy to work at something you truly love, and is truly loved by all who come to visit.

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Nico feeding the fishies

Scott let Nico crawl out on a (fake) log to feed some fish, causing squeals from the people on the outside. They couldn’t see Nico but they could see the fish get all excited. We looked at the backstage animals–either just arrived or in quarantine or maybe just being studied. It was a whole different world in the dim lighting and industrial tanks.

My favorite part, and clearly also a favorite of Ms. Montgomery, was the electric eel. Actually there are two electric eels at the Aquarium but one is off exhibit because the two began to fight. The off-exhibit eel lives in a comparatively Spartan and deliberately functional tank, and Nico was curious as to why the holding tank differed so much from the atmosphere of the public exhibit. Not for the first time, I’m sure, Scott explained that eels are blind and really don’t care about what’s around them. However, the viewing public when greeted with the basic non-plant-filled aquarium give lots of feedback on how the eels should be treated better, even though the eels apparently don’t really care.

So Scott “re-decorated” the tank that is viewable by the public. It’s gorgeous. Lots of living plants, lots of places for eels to hide. And then the viewing public became upset because they could not see the eel. Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think? So, Scott got crafty. Actually it’s completely impressive. He invented the Worm Deployer. And because Sy Montgomery has done such a wonderful job of explaining it, I am lifting a whole passage from her book:

“Hanging above the eel’s tank is a rotating electric fan, to which, attached by a Barrel of Monkeys plastic monkey, hangs an ordinary kitchen funnel. Staff periodically drop live earthworms into the funnel, which fall slowly into the water along with the fan’s arc, right in front of the public. ‘The eel never knows when manna might drop from heaven,’ Scott explained, ‘so he learned to hang out there, just in case.” 

-Sy Montgomery, The Soul of An Octopus, pages 36-37

There is absolutely nothing like a backstage tour to show you that some things are just better with small plastic monkeys holding onto kitchen funnels.

After the eels, Nico fed the salmon which had a great big party and splashed him in their excitement. We exited into the main part of the aquarium from there, and one of the tourists told Nico “good job”–he must have seen him from the front of the tank. Scott walked us over to see the poison dart frogs (not poisonous but still beautiful in captivity) and the piranhas. I don’t think I could possibly say thank you enough to Scott. He spent 45 minutes with us out of a precious day, sharing his love for fish, for his job, for the Amazon. We are so lucky as a planet that such people exist, and fight for the mighty Amazon, even living thousands of miles away.

It was also an interesting lesson to me on letting people know that you love what they do, too. If I hadn’t sent Scott an email a week before leaving the Amazon, we would never have spent a lovely hour at the Aquarium getting a special view of our favorite place in Boston. We couldn’t stop talking about it for days. Please note that backstage tours are available to New England Aquarium members and the freshwater gallery can be specially requested if you too are intrigued by the Worm Deployer.

Anyway, the New England Aquarium at Boston Harbor. Go. Now. Say hi to Scott for me, and hey, don’t forget to sign up to go to Barcelos with Project Piaba. You know I would if I could!

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